Fall Real Estate 2002

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Selling strategies
When the market gets tough, the marketers get creative

by Katy Chase

When David Solnick hung the for-sale sign in front of the $2+ million house he designed in Barron Park, he knew better than to expect an instant offer.

Architect and devloper David Solnick is billing his eco-friendly home as an 'anti-monster house', which is sited well and scaled to the neighborhood.

"The market is always bad in August, because people are on vacation and they're thinking about other things," said Solnick, a Palo Alto architect and developer. "But it was especially bad this August, worse than it has been in several years."

Solnick and others working in a somewhat sluggish real-estate market are trying to alleviate the anxiety tugging at potential buyers with marketing strategies meant to set their homes a notch above the rest.

Part of Solnick's game plan is billing the Whitsell Avenue house that went on the market six weeks ago as an "anti-monster home" - one that draws neighbors' praise rather than their outrage.

"Developers have a bad name," said Solnick, who used to be a molecular biologist before becoming an architect and then a developer. "They tear nice houses down, and they build things that piss people off."

Part of successful marketing is making prospective buyers feel good about what they're doing, he said. Rather than worrying that they're swooping down to encroach upon comfortable neighbors - an all-too-familiar scene - buyers should feel they're moving into an appropriately scaled home that fits in with the neighborhood and its residents.

Coldwell Banker Realtor Nancy Goldcamp often uses food, flowers or limousines when introducing fellow real estate agents to unusual homes. She's presenting this one, at 490 Kingsley Ave. in Palo Alto, as a 1920s fixer-upper in need of some TLC.

"It's very sensitive to the neighborhood. That's part of the pitch, and it's really held up," said Solnick, adding that nearly 2,000 people have come through the two-story house since it went on the market in mid-July. "A tremendous number of neighbors have come through and really liked it." Several Barron Park residents have e-mailed him with the ultimate compliment - asking him to design a house on their streets.

"The way you make houses feel like they belong is really considering the site," said Solnick, who based his modern "comfortable contemporary" design on the movement of the sun.

Besides the home's modest appearance from the street with no sidewalk, visitors have also appreciated its emphasis on environmentally friendly methods and materials - another feature Solnick has been eager to plug in an area so "green" conscious.

He and building partner Kirk Welton of Welton Construction, also based in Palo Alto, hired a firm to dismantle by hand the house that used to occupy the lot. Almost all of the materials were recycled or resold, from the wooden framing down to the gravel from the tar-and-gravel roof. And the lot still boasts the three sprawling oak trees that have been growing there for decades.

Signs in the spacious kitchen call attention to its counter tops, which are made from recycled glass and concrete. Other "green" aspects include an energy-saving whole-house fan rather than air conditioning and pre-wiring for photovoltaic panels to generate electricity from the sun.

Three-dimensional graphics help visitors to fully visualize the structure of the house, which boasts a vaulted great room and kitchen in the front before opening to two stories of more private space in the rear.

Another way to entice potential buyers is by illustrating some of their options, Solnick said. A set of 3-D graphics in the master bedroom shows how the wall separating it from an adjacent room can be partially or completely removed to create one large suite. The wall was purposely constructed with no plumbing and hardly any wiring for easy removal.

Similarly, the front wall of the detached cottage in the rear can easily be removed if the buyer would prefer to use it as a second carport.

Helping potential buyers envision their ideas as reality has been crucial to broker Michael Blomquist, who took the strategy to an extreme while attempting to sell a home in the dried-up market following Sept. 11, 2001.

He marketed a $2.1 million home on Oakhurst Avenue in Los Altos as "new construction you can customize," offering the buyer the chance to select the finishing touches including floorings, counter tops, landscaping and interior paint.
He had already intended to leave these final details to the buyer, but after Sept. 11 he opted to go the extra mile to show visitors how they could make the home uniquely their own.

"A lot of buyers out there have a tough time envisioning things," said Blomquist, who hired artist Cristina Acosta to add artistic touches to exterior walls, interior finishes and skylights and breathe energy into idea boards posted throughout the house. Blomquist also heavily advertised the home's options on www.resourcerealty.com, the Web site for his company, Michael Scott Properties.

Jumpstarting the creative process seemed to work: The home sold in October after fewer than three months on the troubled market. The rest of the work on the house was completed within three weeks.

Still, Blomquist said the semi-custom approach isn't one he would recommend to other brokers.

"It worked out really well, but I don't think I would use it as a general practice," he said, adding that he's heard plenty of horror stories about buyers who kept changing their minds after materials had already been purchased. "I would rather do full-on custom, (or have them) just buy it at the very end."

Nancy Goldcamp, a Realtor for Coldwell Banker, has found that marketing a home to other real estate agents (who might direct their clients there) is just as important as showing its potential to buyers.

Looking to demonstrate the appeal of a Redwood City property to agents who might otherwise have been skeptical, Goldcamp hired executive limousines to chauffer them to the house, where she treated them to brunch along with the standard tour.

"I wanted to show that this Redwood Shores property was a fabulous deal compared to Palo Alto and Menlo Park," she said. "It's important that it's well-presented not only to the public, but also to the other agents."

With so many properties crowding the market, it often takes a creative touch to capture agents' attention. Goldcamp sometimes holds raffles at her showings, giving a $100 Nordstrom gift certificate to the winner. Or maybe the first 25 agents to arrive will get a complimentary bottle of wine. If the yard is beautiful but could easily be bypassed, she might serve her trademark scones there to draw attention.

"You need to get them to look at the house and get them to remember it," Goldcamp said. The same principle applies to potential buyers, although they often need an extra push to envision putting their own touches on a property.

"We try to leave less to the imagination, because many people can't really imagine" the possibilities, Goldcamp said. She frequently posts sketches for possible additions and tries to provide permit history and building requirements for the home, "so people know what their options are."

While many marketing tactics work for any property, some homes call for a tailor-made presentation. Goldcamp is marketing a fixer-upper Professorville home built in the 1920s as a heritage property that just needs some tender loving care.

"Technically, it can be torn down, and the lot can be subdivided," she said of the home, which hasn't been on the market since a family moved into it 70 years ago. "But we're not marketing it that way. We're advertising it as a home that has some feeling and has some relevance."

She is arranging to have a floor plan available for potential buyers (the originals have been lost), and she plans to hire a writer to create a brochure detailing the home's place in history.

While she's constantly cooking up creative ways to drive sales, Goldcamp said she doesn't think the market is in a slump.

"A lot of people think the market is really bad right now, but it's just fine," Goldcamp said.